Tillich and Popular Culture
Articles by Josh Hasler, Martha Brundage, Hyunwoong Hwang, Shelby Condray
This brief sketch is not meant to
detail Paul Tillich’s rich theory of art, but rather to
discover details of the public perception of and
reaction to Tillich’s participation in the cultural
elite of New York and elsewhere. A search for
contemporaneous accounts of his public influence amounts
to a sort of Tillichian archeology. In lieu of potsherds
and clay tablets, we have scraps of newspapers, quotes,
and passing mentions of the Tillich’s influence in the
artistic world. So I begin with the hypothesis that from
whatever mundane objects we uncover, we may draw some
modest conclusions about the public perception of the
man during his time.
Tillich’s activities on the New
York art “scene” are well documented. As a theologian he
was never dismissed by the avant garde as some
puritanical theologian (of course he was not, but the
absence of the depreciatory term is telling) and even
seems to have understood some artists more deeply and
compassionately than art critics. For example, as
Christmas approached in 1952, the Sunday edition of the
New York Times detailed several exhibitions of
religious art, which included crucifixion paintings of
Salvador Dalí and an exhibit at Union Theological
Seminary for which Tillich acted as faculty advisor. Art
Editor, Aline Louchheim, opened the article noting that
none of these exhibits contained “sweetly sentimental or
sickly streamlined versions of religious themes,” which
he or the readership may have expected. Louchheim framed
the discussion of Dalí and others with Tillich’s
four-fold artistic relationships, including creativity
itself as “’the power of being, the ultimate
potentiality of life,’” then noted with what seems to be
a tone of mild surprise that artists, particularly
expressionist artists in the Union exhibits, resonated
with Tillich’s thought. Tillich provided a profound
frame for Louchhiem, who closed otherwise rich piece
with the line “[m]aybe spirituality, like beauty, lies
in the eye of the beholder.” I wince as both Tillich and
Dalí are gulped down a cliché’s gummy maw, even if it
does contain a partial truth or show exactly what
happens to pearls cast before swine.
Tillich’s consistent involvement in
the art world earned him a nearly a perfunctory place in
the aesthetic news of the post-war world. References to
the man abound. Before me sits a 1962 Boston Globe
notes Tillich’s presence on a panel regarding religious
art during the Easter holidays. A 1964 New York Times
notes first lady Claudia Johnson’s attendance at
Tillich’s dedication lecture for the Museum of Modern
Art’s expanded sculpture garden. Tillich’s obituary in
the Boston Globe notes his interdisciplinary work,
particularly his consistent commitment to the fine arts.
Most of these references to Tillich are casual mentions
with minimal explanation of his identity and station.
Tillich’s influence and reputation
appears on a spectrum. In 1966, a year after Tillich’s
death, New York Times art critic Grace Glueck
reported on a dinner held by the New York Society for
Clinical Psychiatry. Glueck quoted an organizer of the
event as saying, “[w]e’ve had everyone appear at these
dinners, from Paul Tillich to Warhol…” The passing
reference seems to suggest a spectrum spanning from the
depth of an old standard in cultural engagement to a
new, perhaps more bizarre era for the New York artistic
world. If I were allowed to read a little more into the
ephemeral comparison, I might sense an implicit contrast
indicates a slight sense of nostalgia speedily ignored
in the excitement and row of the middle sixties. Even
so, a decade later, in the November 5th issue of the
New York Times Gluck again mentioned Tillich as the
late owner of a painting by Alfonso Ossorio featured in
a New York exhibition of religious art. In a 1989, Jack
Anderson wrote a review of spiritual choreography in
which discussed one dance, which “…suggests humanity is
forever on the brink of disaster” and presents a
“’yearning for the wholly other: an ultimate reality.’”
Is it surprising that Tillich, then dead for twenty-five
years but whose affinity for dance was well documented,
made an appearance in this context? One choreographed
piece, which dealt explicitly with the problem of
theodicy, prompted Anderson to include several lines
from Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted” in his review.
It is not clear whether or not the choreographers
intended such a comparison, but a discussion of
Tillich’s grace “’in spite of separation and
estrangement’” certainly borrows Tillich’s living
theological depth for an aesthetic discussion some years
after his death.
If nothing else, the fragments give a sense of Tillich’s
aura within the aesthetic community. Whether or not he
ever made a transition from the avant garde to the rear
guard in the popular consciousness is unimportant—that
there was a popular consciousness of a theologian
speaking seriously on art is remarkable. To be mentioned
in passing does Tillich the honor of needing no
explanation. Tillich seems to have been a ‘household
name’ for those aesthetically inclined. Even so, a
piecemeal collection of references begs the question—are
these fragments only fragments or do they
represent a legitimate positive regard for Tillich in
the art world? Are they simply remnants, a modern
pedestal of Ozymandias preserved in library archives?
Or, are these small memorials to a significant
contribution? This is difficult to answer. Of course
Tillich’s influence faltered once his corporeal presence
left the conversation, and it is not surprising that
mention of the man in the news has also slowed
considerably as we approach half a century since his
passing. I suspect, though, that he would not be
surprised or even saddened by waning influence. He lent
is voice to an existential situation, an epoch of space
and time and bore no illusions about the finitude of his
voice. Were he here, though, what might disappoint the
man is that no other theologian since has answered the
call to speak meaningfully to the artistic community.
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Begbie, Jeremy. “Theology, Ontology and the Philosophy of Art with Special Reference to Paul Tillich and the Dutch Neo-Calvinists,” PhD Dissertation. Aberdeen, 1987.
Begbie, Jeremy. Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1991.
Carey, John Jesse. Kairos and Logos: Studies in the Roots and Implications of Tillich's Theology. Cambridge, MA: North American Paul Tillich Society, 1978.
Cobb, Kelton. The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
Cobb, Kelton. “Reconsidering the Status of Popular Culture in Tillich's Theology of Culture,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995): 53-84.
Danz, Christian. “Religion and Modern Culture: Considerations on Theology of Culture of Paul Tillich and Karl Barth,” The North American Paul Tillich Society Bulletin 37/1 (Winter 2011): 23-29.
Dillenberger, John. A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church. London: SCM, 1987.
Dixon, John W. “Is Tragedy Essential to Knowing: A Critique of Dr. Tillich's Aesthetic,” The Journal of Religion 43, no. 4 (1963): 271-284.
Halsey, Brian. “Paul Tillich on Religion and Art,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 9, no. 4 (1974): 100-112.
Holladay, Meredith A. “Music as Theology: Using Tillich's Theology of Culture to Understand the Prophetic and Theological in Popular Music,” The North American Paul Tillich Society Bulletin 39/4 (Fall 2013): 40-46.
Kegley, Charles W. “Paul Tillich on the Philosophy of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 19:2 (1960): 175-184.
Matthews, Thomas F. “Tillich on Religious Content in Modern Art,” Art Journal 27:1 (1967): 16-19.
Nikkel, David. “Updating Tillich on Religion and Art,” The North American Paul Tillich Society Bulletin 37/3 (Summer 2011): 10-16.
O'Meara, Thomas F. “Art and Music as Illustrators of Theology,” Anglican Theological Review 55, no. 3 (1973): 267-277.
Palmer, Michael. Paul Tillich's Philosophy of Art. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1984.
Re Manning, Russell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Re Manning, Russell. Theology at the End of Culture: Paul Tillich's Theology of Culture and Art. Leuven: Peeters, 2005.
Re Manning, Russell. “Towards a Critical Reconstruction and Defense of Paul Tillich's Theology of Art.” Arts 16, no. 2 (2004): 32-37.
Scharlemann, Robert. “The Religious Interpretation of Art,” The Thought of Paul Tillich, ed. James Luther Adams, Wilhelm Pauck, and Roger LIncon Shinn. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1985.
Thiessen, Gesa. “Religious Art is Expressionistic. A Critical Appreciation of Paul Tillich's Theology of Art,” Irish Theological Quarterly 59:4 (1993): 301-311.
Thompson, R. Duane. “Tillich's Esthetic of Ultimate Meaning,” Continuum (Chicago, III) 3, no. 1 (1965): 68-74.
Tillich, Paul. “Art and Ultimate Reality,” Cross Currents, 10 (Winter 1960): 2-14.
Tillich, Paul. On Art and Architecture. Ed. Jane Dillenberger and John Dillenberger. New York: Crossroad, 1981
Wheeler, Geraldine. “Three Theologians and Their Favorite Paintings,” Arts 18, no. 1 (2006): 6-13.
Willimon, William H. “Tillich and Art: Pitfalls of a Theological Dialogue with Art,” Religion In Life 45, no. 1 (1976): 72-81.
Here are some citations and links of the expressionist paintings that Tillich was facinated with.
Drawings: Command + click
"With respect to stylistic element (which reappear in all historical styles), the realistic, the idealistic, and the expressionistic elements can be distinguished. Each appears in every style, but normally one element is predominant. From the point of view of theonomy, one can say that the expressionistic element is most able to express the self-transcendence of life in the vertical line. It breaks away from the horizontal movement and shows the Spiritual Presence in symbols of broken finitude. This is the reason why most of the great religious art in all periods has been determined by the expressionist element in its stylistic expression. When the naturalistic and idealistic elements are predominant, the finite is either accepted in its finitude (though not copied) or is seen in its essential potentialities but not in its disruption and salvation. Naturalism, when predominant, produces acceptance, idealism, anticipation, and expressionism the breakthrough into the vertical. Thus expressionism is the genuinely theonomous element."(Systematic Theology Volume 3, p. 258)
EXPRESSIONISM AND ULTIMATE REALITY: Paul Tillich's Theology of Art Author(s): JOSEPH L. PRICE Source: Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal,Vol. 69, No. 4, Papers for The Tillich Centennial (Winter 1986), pp. 479-498 Published by: Penn State University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178394 Accessed: 20-10-2015 22:14 UTC
Tillich' MOMA speech
I must confess that I have not learned from any theological book as much as I learned from these pictures of the great modern artists who broke through into the realm out of which symbols are born. And you cannot understand theology without under- standing symbols (1956a, 144-5).
He declared that he had come to the conclusion that "an apple of Cezanne has more presence of ultimate reality than a picture of Jesus by Hoffman" (1960, 5).(479)
An Apple of Cezanne
Tillich often called Picasso's "Guernica" the most Protestant painting in the modern era because it portrays the problems of the human disruption of creation, existential doubt, and the emptiness of meaning in much of human experience - all of which are problems for which the Christian faith must provide answers.(480)
It is possible to see in a still-life by Cézanne, an animal picture by Marc, a landscape by Schmidt-Rottluff, and an erotic picture by Nolde, the direct revelation of an absolute reality in these rela- tive things. The world-import experienced in the artist's reli- gious ecstasy, shines through the things; they have become "holy" objects. (Tillich "Religiöser Stil und religiöser Stoff in der bildenden Kunst" 156, quoted in Adams 1970, 81)
Still-life by Cézanne
Animal by Marc
Landscape by Schmidt-Rottluff,
Tillich indicates a third common artistic element, which he calls "style." Essentially, SOUNDINGS "style" is the manner of presentation of a particular form-content. As such, style is the element which generates fundamentally religious impressions like disruption (as in "Guernica") and harmony (as in Raphael's "Madonna and Child"), and which stimulates the re- spective consequent feelings of alienation and peacefulness
Raphael's "Madonna and Child"
Tillich regards Griinewald's "Crucifixion" as "the greatest German picture ever painted."(487)
Tillich's reconciliation to non-objective art, such as Jackson Pollock's "No. 1," resulted from his examination of its roots. Non-objective mystical-panentheistic preciates the mystery art, he believes, arises out of a experience of reality, one which fully ap- and possibility of encountering Ultimate Reality in all moments and in all places.(488)
Jackson Pollock's "No. 1,"
In the style of expressionism, of lines in Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," the irregularity the angularity of lines in Cezanne's "Still Life with Basket of Apples," the thickness of lines and color in Cezanne's "Mont Sainte- Victoire as Seen from Bibemus Quarry," and the muddled, almost angular change of color in van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" generate a sense of disruption, apprehension, and uncertainty - feelings akin to those of Angst.(493)
Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase"
Cezanne's "Mont Sainte- Victoire as Seen from Bibemus Quarr"
van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters"
We all know the image, flowing
light-brown hair gently caresses the contours of an
effete caucasian male with striking blue eyes. His face
is preternaturally calm, his gaze, penetrating to the
depths of the human soul. The well-trimmed beard assures
us of his penis, and the aureola of light speaks to his
sanctity. This is Jesus in all his divine glory. Or
perhaps we see Jesus surrounded by children and lambs,
rolling verdant fields fading off into the horizon, the
Sunday School Jesus. Increasingly common today,
especially in the Evangelical movement, is the bloodily
pornographic image of an eroticized Jesus hanging on a
cross, his contorted countenance and writhing body
reflecting a sadistic imaging of the crucifixion as an
orgasmic moment of both agony and ecstasy, Jesus the
masochistic suffering servant. Lastly, we have Christ
the peaceful companion who carries us across the sand
leaving only a single set of footprints... the invisible
“Chicken Soup for the Soul” Jesus. For Protestants,
following in the footsteps of our Reformation forebears
has meant that we stick to Christ for our Christian
imagery; casting out Mary and all those sanctimonious
Saints as pure idolatry, we create religious art
centered on the subliminal idolatry of the Christ
contained and confined in a closed set of images and
Paul Tillich, the prominent
Protestant theologian of the middle decades of the 20th
century, was a well-known critic of what he labeled
“kitsch” in religious art. For Tillich, this meant art
that was “pre-digested”: possessed of Gehalt, or
content, that does not in any meaningful way interact
with the form and thus reveals nothing of ultimate
importance (read: nothing of the Divine); we are simply
fed back the saccharine regurgitations of our lowest
cultural common denominator. In a concise statement of
his philosophy of art, a young Tillich writing in 1921
following his experience on the front lines of World War
I succinctly states that art’s “immediate task is ...
that of expressing meaning. Art indicates what the
character of a spiritual situation is; it does this more
immediately and directly than do science and philosophy
for it is less burdened by objective considerations. Its
symbols have something of a revelatory character while
scientific conceptualization must suppress the symbolic
in favor of objective adequacy.” Art is the medium
through which we can come to know ourselves, our culture
and the ultimate ground of our being more fully.
Against the backdrop of the
destruction and even evil incarnate instantiated in the
rise of the Third Reich, meaning is what Americans
living in the 1950’s and 1960’s struggled to find. The
old patterns no longer fit, but they were familiar and
stable. The old content no longer spoke to people but it
was easier to tolerate than to dispute. Witnessing first
hand the horror of war and the impotence of an ossified
theology in the face of such events, Tillich came to
promote a “Protestant principle” that pushed for a
living heart pulsing inside the Christian faith and
encouraging a “prophetic judgment against religious
pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular
self-sufficiency and their destructive consequences.”
Paul Tillich’s theology challenged the foundations of
Protestant thought through the embrace of continuing
protest against the inculcated and institutionalized.
The old answers need not be our answers and in fact
could not be. This flexibility and vibrant
life-affirming theology gave millions of Americans the
“Courage” to face the abyss that the horrors of war had
made so concrete.
It is within this context that we
can understand Tillich’s prominence in the American art
culture of the 50’s and 60’s. As the church must be open
to new revelation, so to, art, both content and form,
must be open to new processes and revelatory
expressions. Indeed, for Tillich the “courage to be”
arises from the recognition of the ground of being
(God), and art provides virtually unparalleled access to
recognition of this ground of being; in the complex
negotiations between form and content we glimpse
While not outright inconceivable, it is rather
incredible today to think that museums as notable as New
York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Chicago Art
Institute would turn to a theologian to curate and give
the keynote speech at the opening of an exhibit. We tend
to separate art and theology, religious art and “high”
art. Tillich, however, spoke on numerous occasions as an
expert in both fields. His popularity served to
legitimize modern art movement as he applied his
theology to the field of art. From his address on the
opening of new MOMA galleries in 1964, and lecture
“Ultimate Reality and Art” (1959) to his “Masterpieces
of Religious Art” exhibit in Chicago, Tillich sought to
bring a recognition of art’s power to capture
humankind’s search for the Ultimate. In this, Tillich
once again captured the nascent spirit of his time; a
mere two three years later Warhol would bring forth his
iconic Campbell’s soup can with its withering critique
of lifeless art forms and content. Against the voices
lionizing the traditional, Tillich exalted the original
and honest. In a testament to Tillich’s star power, the
New York Times published a two-page spread covering his
art exhibit (August 1, 1954). This article captures the
essence of Tillich’s theology of art: great art reveals
the questions with which a society struggles. The
article contains eight prints ranging from the 11th
through 19th centuries along with a note on Tillich’s
speech and small descriptions of the artwork included in
the article. We see Tillich’s theology of art reflected
in descriptions such as this one: “The early northern
painters saw God’s presence in each tiny object. For the
seventeenth-century masters religion became humanized:
with spiritual tones for Rembrandt, but, as in ‘Old
Woman Praying,’ in a more bourgeois, stolid fashion for
Nicholas Maes.” or this one: Jean-François Millet’s,
‘The Angelus,’ esthetically a splendid picture, seems
laden with a self-complacent, mid-Victorian
sentimentality — the humble peasants glorified by their
sense of the Great Beyond. It is one of the world’s most
popular religious paintings.”
Tillich recognized that art reflects the deepest
stirrings of human culture and sought to free the
expression of these deep insights from the intransigent
forces of cultural inertia. Through his popular theology
he gained a platform from which he could lend legitimacy
to an artistic movement capturing the spirit of his
time. When we oppose this ever-evolving expression of
the ultimate, we become the Roman soldiers who bound the
living Word to the cross; we ourselves crucify the
Christ on the cross of our petrified institutional
norms. Tillich’s theology of art sets us free and gives
us the tools to paint a new religious landscape.
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